Copy Matters: Writing for Non-Writers

Copy Matters: Writing for Non-Writers

April 2, 2012 by

This is part nine in our Copy Matters series.

An incompetent amateurs’ guide to writing compelling content.

I know I suck at writing. Especially when I look around and read what others in the church communication world such as Lori Bailey or Kem Meyer write. They wield their pens like Arnold Palmer ripping up the back nine holes at the Masters on the final day.

I know that in the harsh cold light of day I’m really like that amateur weekend golfer in their loud pants trying my utmost to bring my A-game like a pro does.

Here are just a few simple ideas that will improve your writing swing from a frustrated weekend hacker to someone who has the potential to play with the pros.

Write Like You Talk With Your Friends
My mind was like a lifeless and empty desert when I first started writing. Parched, dry and void of the great spark of life that… oh boy.

Or it was like a sand trap.

Then I stumbled on this idea: Write like you talk. I began to speak out loud what I wanted to write as though I was talking with a friend. It was a revelation that completely improved my writing overnight. You lose the wordiness and over-wrought gunk. If you don’t want to type while you talk there are plenty of audio apps that you can dictate into your smart phone or your computer.

Be Concise and Clear
There is nothing like copy that is too long and you can never quite understand. Believe me. I’ve read many theology books wondering if I’m from a different planet from the writer.

Get to the point. Don’t waffle. Be concise and clear so that your reader will understand your point the first time around. Get to the green!

Cultivate the Right Tone
Getting the tone right is so important. Ask yourself before your write, what kind of tone you are looking for? Are you looking for a tone that packs attitude? Or is casual, formal, funny or sensitive?

Stay on the Same Topic
You’ve got to stay out of the rough. This is my biggest challenge. Because I write like I talk I can go off on tangents that never come back. My free-thinking helps my creativity, but it doesn’t necessarily help the reader. Find a good editor who can help you focus without losing what makes your writing work.

Don’t Over Promise
This next tip is a gamer changer. You’re writing will never be the same again. It will take you to the next level in your writing.

Wait. Stop. This post will help you, but it isn’t a game changer.

Whatever you do don’t over promise. Keep your writing real. Grounded. It doesn’t mean that you can’t tell people what they can expect to get out of something. It means just be sensible.

Choose an Angle
Who would of thought that writing and golf had something in common? I chose that as my angle on this topic. Well it kind of choose me because seeing Kem and Lori in plus fours ripping up the back nine of a golf course just resonated with me and made me giggle like a girl.

Choosing a original angle on a topic can make your writing more engaging and cut though the noise of the thousands of competing messages your reader has to engage with on a daily basis. Don’t over do it, but sometimes a simple angle can help pull things together.

Practice Makes Perfect: Start a Blog
I used to visit the driving range often and my golf game was so much better. Hitting 500 balls with twenty others at my local range vastly improved my golf when it came to game time.

Practice makes perfect with writing too. There are many ways to practice and hone your literary skills. One that has helped me is writing a blog. While I may blog about communications and marketing it has helped me step up when it comes to my weekday work as a church communications dude.

What’s Helped You?
I don’t claim to have all of the answers to take you from woe to pro. What has helped you improve your writing?


Getting Started: Copy Matters - "Bad writing tries too hard to impress."

Post By:

Steve Fogg

Steve serves as the big cheese of communications at his church in Melbourne, Australia; he married way above his pay grade and has three children. Connect with him on his blog or on other social networks.
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14 Responses to “Copy Matters: Writing for Non-Writers”

  • Aaron Burrows
    April 2, 2012

    Irony: “Ask yourself before your write…” :)

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  • Kellen
    April 2, 2012

    Constantly writing and in different ways. Long articles and a few short books I’m working on have taught me how to explain things and flesh my thoughts out. Blog posts help me to find a way to explore ideas, and because I write so many of them, taught me how to find new things to talk about. Tweets help me be clear and concise which actually help all of my writing from dragging on.

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    • Steven Fogg
      April 2, 2012

      Thanks Kellen. Mixing it up does help. I personally love tweets as it forces me down to an irreducible minimum which is cool!

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  • Karl Udy
    April 2, 2012

    Actually, I found the advice to “write how you talk” to be the singularly most unhelpful piece of advice anyone has given. More than that I think that the advice is not just unhelpful for me, but for any English speaker, as English is such a colloquial language that the spoken and written forms are so different.

    In languages that are less colloquial (such as Mandarin) the advice probably holds. But certainly not in English.

    I do heartily agree with your point on being concise and clear. And ironically, this is one thing that spoken language is often not (especially today) – people often rely on tone of voice and body language to carry their meaning while their words are a constant stream of vague reference.

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    • Steven Fogg
      April 3, 2012

      Karl, wow! really?

      THE most singularly most unhelpful advice anyone has given? I’d say that’s a gross overstatement.

      As a non-writer who has transitioned into writing, speaking out while I’m writing has been an incredibly helpful for me.

      I also know of many speakers that speak out their books into an audio format and someone transcribes their spoken word.

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    • Kevin D. Hendricks
      April 3, 2012

      Karl, unlike Steve, I’m a professional writer, and the advice to write like you talk is sound. So sound that I used the same advice in point #4 on this post. Writing conversationally is a great way to improve your writing.

      Now that doesn’t mean you literally write like you talk. You don’t insert ‘like’ and ‘um’ and every ridiculous idiom. But it means writing like a human being, using normal words and sentence length and not droning on like a high school English paper. People tend to slip into English paper mode when they write, and the result is dull, dry, lifeless prose. If people wrote more like they talked, their writing would be much more engaging.

      Trust me. I make my living at it.

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      • Karl Udy
        April 4, 2012

        Kevin and Steve,
        I agree with your points about writing like a human being, using normal words and sentence length, etc. If that is the point you are trying to get across in “write how you talk” is then I agree with you.

        I just don’t come across an awful lot of people talking like that. Especially regarding to sentence length. People often run sentences together, sometimes covering several disparate topics in a single sentence.

        When you write you have time to find synonyms or to reword sentences, so you’re not repeating the same words, phrases or sentence structure over and over. Listen to people speaking (especially a untrained speaker) and see how repetitive they can be, and not in a rhetorically powerful “I have a dream” manner.

        What I do think people should do in their writing is to say what they mean. Too many people ruin simple communication by trying to make it sound professional. And all it ends up sounding is fake. Again if when you say “write how you talk” then I agree, but I would prefer to say “write what you mean to say”.

        Steve – for those speakers who speak out their books as someone transcribes – they are depending on a (probably highly trained) skill of spoken communication, that can then be transcribed into written communication. Most of us are not so highly trained spoken communicators.

        By the way, I agree with all the other points, and I think we probably agree on the substance of what makes good writing regarding this point. I just have found the “write how you talk” advice did not help my writing at all, and I hope I’ve made it clear why.

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  • Brent
    April 2, 2012

    Thanks for the thoughts. I have been doing more writing this year and have felt that I have grown immensely. There is nothing like doing it to help you do it better!

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  • Tim
    April 3, 2012

    Hey guys,
    Came across this thread through Steve’s tweet.
    Definitely not completely unhelpful. It’s probably a great kickoff to your writing career.

    I also thought this might be helpful to would-be writers:

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  • Brian
    April 4, 2012

    “Write like you talk. I began to speak out loud what I wanted to write as though I was talking with a friend… ”

    So I actually just started this practice. Question, how do you handle the weird stares from the other people in Starbucks as you talk to yourself? Just curious…any follow-up advice would be helpful.

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    • Steven Fogg
      April 5, 2012


      Firstly embrace the weird stares and just say “The meds are due to kick in at any moment” or “If craziness was good enough for Hemingway it’s good enough for me!”

      Or you can just lock yourself in a room and type while you talk ;-)

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  • Kim Avery
    April 5, 2012

    I have never liked to write but find it a painful necessity in the virtual world where I live and work. I stumbled across this “write like you talk” principle several weeks ago (I don’t remember where), and it is already changing my attitude towards writing.

    By assuming a seemingly scholarly and formal tone, I wasn’t just torturing my readers, I was torturing myself.

    Now, I am enjoying letting my personality, with all its quirkiness, come out in print, and I am hoping that my readers are are enjoying the change as well.

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  • Ronaldo Patrocinio
    April 9, 2012

    My only argument about the advice “Write like you talk” is that not everyone thinks before they talk — hence: more words, less substance. Not only does that result to an overflow of useless phrases, but it can also jumble up the message.

    However, I do agree in “write like you talk” when we mean “use common words.” Well, a mind-catching unfamiliar word may be helpful in catching one’s attention once in a while, but I agree that turning the entire writeup into a spelling/vocabulary test isn’t exactly fun and enjoyable to read.

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